Lasting health consequences follow premature birth
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The health consequences of being born prematurely are broad and enduring, including a higher risk of death throughout childhood and lower reproduction rates as adults, researchers said on Tuesday.
Those are the findings of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that tracked almost 1.2 million people born in Norway from 1967 to 1988.
It is well known that babies delivered before the 37th week of pregnancy, or three weeks before the normal due date, are at higher risk for various medical and developmental problems as infants. Less is known about their long-term health.
The researchers found that while most premature babies went on to have good health and good reproduction, as a group they experienced higher long-term risks than full-term babies.
Preemies, as these premature babies are popularly known, had higher risk of death in childhood, were less likely to reproduce as adults, had slightly lower educational attainment and, among the women, were more likely to have their own babies born prematurely just as they had been.
The overall risk for death among preemies was still low, but was significantly higher than for full-term babies.
The earlier in the pregnancy that a baby was born, the higher the risk of lasting health consequences, said Dr. Geeta Swamy of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, one of the researchers.
Preemies may develop health problems primarily because their organs do not have enough time to develop in the womb. Premature birth remains a prime cause of infant death in industrialized countries.
The risk of complications is greatest in the first year of life, but the researchers said parents should be aware that the risks may persist for years.
"When a family has a pre-term baby, they're pretty concerned and aware of what's going on in those first few months, first years of life. It may be that they need to keep that heightened awareness that there may be other things we should watch out for," Swamy said in a telephone interview.
Dr. Alan Fleischman, medical director of the March of Dimes, which works to prevent premature births, called the study important, but said the findings do not reflect modern neonatal care because the babies were born decades ago.
"These outcomes are all from babies who didn't benefit from the most modern respirators, the most modern technology, the most modern treatments," Fleischman said.
Babies born very prematurely -- from 22 to 27 weeks of pregnancy -- had the highest risk of death throughout childhood. The risk persisted for girls until about age 6 and for boys up to about age 13, Swamy said.
Swamy said the researchers also looked at reproduction rates as adults as an indicator of overall health.
Men born at 22 to 27 weeks were 76 percent less likely to have offspring and women 67 percent less likely than their peers who were born after full-term pregnancies. For those born at 28 to 32 weeks, men were 30 percent less likely and women 19 percent less likely to have their own children.
About 5 percent of the babies in the study were premature, with boys a bit more likely than girls. The study looked at single births, excluding twins or other multiple births who already have a higher risk for being delivered early.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)